We launched Q magazine in 1986 and part of our plan was to cover unfashionable musicians ignored by Britain’s weekly music press. If they had fans, and a story to tell, we were interested in them. For the magazine’s issue of February 1988, I travelled to Munich with photographer Ken Sharp, where we joined Chris Rea on tour.
AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET
Another 45 date world tour. Another pastel-hued, vacuumed hotel suite. Another long distance call home. Scorned by the tastemakers, ignored by the public, Chris Rea’s solution was doggedly old-fashioned; he toured his music to success. It only took a decade. I’ve proved my point,” he tells Paul Du Noyer.
“They’re always a bugger to do, these things. You’ve just got to do ’em. They’re nice people, but…”
Chris Rea, a man commonly described in magazine headlines as The Reluctant Rock Star, looks more reluctant than usual tonight. He’s off to a meal to be held in his honour, given by the local promoter. It’s a ritual of foreign tours, and Rea knows the form. He’s just done a show, he’s tired. Still, he sighs a resigned sigh and stubs out his cigarette, and he hauls his heavy, sagging frame from the tour bus sofa.
“Ah, well. Let’s go…”
If this is Tuesday (or is it Thursday?), then this must be Munich. Then again, it could be Heidelberg. Or Frieburg. Or Zoefingen, Essen or Dusseldorf. It does seem to be Germany, anyhow.
Into the restaurant… Thai food. Large glass containers of a locally-concocted lager. Slumped and bleary, Rea gets a nudge: across the room, apparently, the German promoter is making a speech about him. It’s upbeat, gung-ho stuff. To Chris! To the tour’s success! Cheers! And because Rea knows the form, he gets up on his feet again, raises a lager, does the decent thing: “Er, ta. We live in hope. Better than living in Sunderland.”
He sits down. Duty done.
I remark, of the evening’s show, that he spoke no German to the audience, even though he’s spent so much time out here. Shrugs. “You know, you start the tour, you try to be nice to the Dutch, then the Belgians, then it’s the French. In the end you just think, ah, fuck it.”
He warms to his theme: “I understand Chris de Burgh speaks very good German. Chris De Burgh. Annoying little bastard…”
Why such hostility towards de Burgh, that inoffensive Irish troubadour? For the reasons, we must look to Rea’s 10-year career as singer and songwriter – a time that has seen him acclaimed as a middle-of-the-road balladeer (on the strength of his early hit Fool If You Think It’s Over), consigned to the dumper as woefully out of step with the UK’s new wave, and more recently restored to commercial grace by means of three best-selling albums and chart singles like Let’s Dance and Loving You Again.
Now 37, Rea’s ascent to his current happy state has been a slow and catastrophically uneven business. Only in the past four years does he feel his records have accurately reflected his tastes and capabilities. A thick-set Middlesbrough man, with a combative side to his nature and a north-easterner’s impatience with the bullshit he finds inherent in the music industry, nothing has galled him more than being perceived as a wimpish crooner. Comparisons to Chris de Burgh (whom he regards with the scorn accorded to a teacher’s pet) have baffled and appalled him.
Rea’s own roots, he protests, are in real music. He picked up the guitar when he was 22, inspired by Ry Cooder and Joe Walsh. Were Rea’s fairy godmother to grant him a single wish, he’d wake up tomorrow with a headband on, and answer to the name Mark Knopfler. His admiration for Knopfler, not unmixed with a certain wistful envy perhaps, knows no bounds. “We owe Dire Straits so much,” he says. “They’ve opened up a whole market to us.”
The newest LP, Dancing With Strangers, has been his biggest seller so far. (Shrewdly, it was released a week after Michael Jackson’s Bad album; customers flocked to the shops to find all display space celebrating Chris Rea). Like his live shows, the record emphasises Rea’s rockier side, a comfortably rugged brand of bluesy guitar music, warmed by his hoarsely intimate way with a tune.
There is a degree of sentimentality in his songs – their commonest themes are travelling, separation from loved ones, and nostalgic meditations on the decline of his home region – but their romance is a battered thing, coarsely poignant like country music. His family background is Irish/Italian, races whose music embraces emotion with a frankness that’s alien to Anglo-Saxon traditions. It irritates him to be considered as cabaret-smooth; he says if he sang a song about his baby daughter for a Dublin pub crowd, or in a working-men’s club, they wouldn’t call it sugary.
Rea speaks with an accent that’s redolent of derelict shipyards. In fact he’s rich enough, these days, never to work again if he didn’t fancy it. But he’s been too long the underdog. He can’t stop thinking of things in a wary, fatalistic way.
“At the risk of sounding smug – cos I’m always touching wood, I always think that now, the better things get, I keep waiting for some fucker to pull the rug underneath me – but what has happened is that I’m happier for everything that has happened. I regret everything that happened, and I hated it, but at this point in time I’m a very happy man. Cos I do take all that fame thing with a pinch of salt.”
When he laughs, it’s a throaty, crumpled rasp, squeezed and wheezing from his chest. When he laughs, when he’s reminiscing, it’s often the laugh you laugh because the only alternative would be to cry your leg off.
So why did it take him so long? He was, at 22, a late starter. He’d tried in his teens to join a group: “A lad was forming a band, The Elastic Band, which was to be based on the Geno Washington/Cliff Bennett sound, and I was first choice for guitar or bass, whichever I could get the down-payment for. And I was told by me dad I couldn’t have the down-payment until I got me ‘O’ levels. Otherwise it would have started then, which is a shame in some ways.”
After some years of casual labour, which included a stint helping out in the Rea family’s ice cream business, he got a place in hometown band Magdalene (whose line-up, at a different time, featured another local lad, David Coverdale), and later formed Beautiful Losers. He left them in 1977 when he’d secured a solo contract with Magnet Records, the company he remains with to this day. As to the Losers, they went on to win a Melody Maker contest, using Rea’s songs, but further glory appears to have eluded them. “They got buggered upside down,” Rea comments, ruefully.
But when success came Rea’s way, it came quickly. And he didn’t enjoy it.
“Me first album (1978’s Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?) took off in America. The first single (Fool If You Think It’s Over) was Top 10 in America. And the way I always saw it, this thing started to happen underneath me. I was sat on top of it, a big manure heap of bubbling stuff.
“I had no control over it; I didn’t know what to do. I’d been in Middlesbrough; I was very happy playing music. And for the two years before I was signed up, I was playing in a group, I had a job in a hamburger place. In summer I’d go to Formentera or Ibiza, and it was great.
“Then suddenly I was signed up: I didn’t know what the fuck had happened. I wasn’t with anybody from Middlesbrough anymore, I was being asked to do things, and never playing music. I used to get on a plane and go to LA, do radio stations, photo sessions, there was always meetings. And I didn’t know enough about the business to know what was going wrong. The first time I smelled something was, we got a Grammy nomination, I went to the Grammy Awards, and I was the only one there out of anybody I liked. None of the others ever went: Costello was doing a gig up the road, Springsteen was out on tour. I started to think then, there’s definitely two sides to this business.
“I just kept telling everyone for two years that I didn’t want to do this.” Rea had been teamed with Elton John’s producer Gus Dudgeon, a sign of the direction his music was expected to go in. “I didn’t get on with Gus Dudgeon in the studio at all: the first album cost millions, so then there was pressure. No one would let go, cos I was the goose that laid the egg, y’know?”
Rea was spending the first years of his professional life being summoned to write a follow-up to Fool If You Think It’s Over: “Oh yeah. That was it. I’d have all sorts of songs, they just hurriedly went through them as if I was some unknown come into the office, like A&R guys do, they’ll whizz through looking for the hook. It was terrible.”
Did he try?
“For my sins, I did. Because I didn’t know what else to do…”
Although the song re-entered the charts a few years later, this time covered by Elkie Brooks, Rea himself soon lost the American market. (He’s only just signed a new contract there – with, of all people, Motown.)
“The second album (Deltics) was almost contractual; we actually made it while the first one was being released, so Gus’d be doing things to the second album, I’d be over in America and come back, things had happened to the tracks. In the end they let me go off and do the Tennis album with the lads again from Middlesbrough. It got great reviews, but not any massive Supertramp-like sales, so they immediately put the clamps on again. By this time I was married, and then this terrible period set in when the record company was just turning down everything.
“Quite frankly I didn’t know what to do. My management had virtually given up, I didn’t trust anybody. I was trying to do deals with people in the company for cash! I’d lost all interest in any of the romantic side of the business. And then it came to making the pink album which wasn’t even TITLED, that was an example of the lethargy which had set in. The cover art I’d put in for, they wouldn’t let us have.
“Then I turned in the Water Sign tapes (his fifth album, 1983) as demos. And they said, that’s it, put them out. And it looked like once they’d released that album they were gonna drop us. And all the people who used to phone me up and say, If you can get out of your deal, we’ll take you on – all the biggies – suddenly I couldn’t get in touch with them! Classic showbiz, the day your phone stops ringing…”
Low ebbs rarely come much lower. Talking to Gus Dudgeon one night, Rea discovered that Dudgeon was getting much more money for doing Chris Rea records than Chris Rea was. On Dudgeon’s recommendation, he found a new manager (Chris Beach, from Queen’s organisation) to help revive his finances. Then he found a co-manager, Paul Lilly, who organised a UK club tour (crowds ranged from 30 to 70), and then a 60-date tour of Germany supporting a band called Saga.
Our story approaches a turning point.
“Then this little fella from Ireland phones up, says the album (Water Sign) is doing very well in Ireland. Of course, Magnet didn’t take that very seriously. But I went over there, it was like Beatlemania! So I stayed there a while, did a large tour. And from there it’s just built very slowly, until now, when the last three albums (Shamrock Diaries, On The Beach, Dancing With Strangers) have all been million-sellers in Europe.
“So, thankfully, we’ve come through.”
Cursed in his dark days, with “the pressure to become “the new Elton Joel”, Rea believes that German record buyers, in particular, rescued his career, because there is not an image-led market: “Definitely. There wasn’t any major music papers, that if you were alienated against them you were OUT, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. They don’t have the power of a Radio One, either. So really you do it by music and by word of mouth. There’s a lot of people like Leo Kottke, John Martyn, who can still gig well in Germany.”
Did he feel bitter, in those days, that the UK’s tastemakers had excluded him?
“I never felt bitter. I felt very frustrated. I always remember sitting in Middlesbrough reading me first Julie Burchill review, and she completely killed us. She was in one of those moods where she took a whole page to do it, and I was the one being held up by a thumb and a finger. What used to frighten me, cos I’d always read the music papers in Middlesbrough, was the way that was it. London was a long way away when you were on the dole, you couldn’t just go there, and it was like getting the tablets from Moses. But the main thing I was stunned over was the actual inaccuracy.
“From then on I was always very wary. In fact, I’ve never taken it seriously since.”
The gist of critical opinion at the time was that Rea’s records were cosy and bland, that they didn’t have the edge required of new wave music.
“Well, they didn’t… God, it’s like re-living a nightmare thinking of this. It was horrible. Cos I agreed with a lot of the reviews on that side of it, I couldn’t disagree. At one point we even set up to go on this punk festival at Loch Lomond. Everyone said I was crazy, it was an absolute waste of time. And I said, Well it’s the only thing I can do, so at least everyone can say, there’s Chris Rea nd that’s what he really does. So I even did that. But it didn’t help! (Laughs).
“I didn’t feel bitter. I couldn’t disagree when people said the first two albums were shit, cos I thought they were.”
What of his home town? As he puts it, many of his songs are “born out of Middlesbrough”. But going back there as a pop singer, albeit struggling, could at times be awkward. “When I used to go back to the pub, it’d be, We had a football match Tuesday, why weren’t you there? I’d say, Well, I had to do a TV in Berlin. Oh really? Yer missed a great match. They used to completely ignore it. I don’t think they half believed me, or they thought I was blagging something. There’s a lot of guys ‘go away’ and come back in Middlesbrough, no one really knows what the fuck they’ve been doing.
“But it is very difficult, because the better things have got for us, the worse it’s got for them. And that’s very hard. I went back to see me father after me mother died, and the fuckers had knocked the whole place down. I’d been gone three years, hard touring in Europe, I literally went to drive somewhere that wasn’t there. It was like a sci-fi movie. That’s when I wrote Steel River. The Middlesbrough I knew, it’s as if there was a war there 10 years ago.
“The other thing about Middlesbrough is a lot of guys ran like shit as soon as the bottom fell through. I tend to see a lot of Middlesbrough guys at Heathrow Airport, who work on oil-rigs, in Rotterdam, or work in Saudi. When we played Australia last year, they were coming out of the woodwork like nobody’s business, guys I was in class with.”
Rea and his wife Joan met on April 6, 1968: “I always forget me anniversary, we got married because our mams and dads wanted us to. But I never forget that date. I’d been chasing her around for a year, very unsuccessfully. I was about five inches shorter than her, and she’d been out with all the proper boys, and that’s what a Stainsby Girl is, the type of girl who’d go out with the top mod, that kind of thing, while we were still wearing short trousers.”
Stainsby Girls, indeed, was a hit single for him in 1985. The local paper thought it would be a good idea to go out on the streets of Stainsby and ask the girls what they thought of Chris Rea. Unfortunately, they hadn’t heard of him. “Ha ha! Well that’s classic, isn’t it? Since Let’s Dance was a big hit, it’s all ‘Chris Rea, and he’s from Middlesbrough’ y’know? That’s life. I’ve been up and down three times now, so I get used to it.”
He’s been with his wife for 20 years: isn’t that a disadvantage for a singer/songwriter? The turbulence of love lost and found is normally their raw material.
“Good question. I suppose the next 10 years will tell you. The fact that’s it’s been a struggle for us for such a long time has formed its own style of writing. If I was in some sort of Parisian brasserie situation, and was falling out of different women’s beds every morning, I suppose, yeah, you’d get different words. But we’ve never had it cosy. There’s always the remembering of when we virtually had nowt. And this time spent away really kills me. It’s like some big black thing that eats your fucking stomach out.
“So it’s forever gonna spawn a good fucking love song. It doesn’t make for good rock’n’roll lyrics, but I’ve never been interested in that.. You’ll never hear me sing, When I’ve got her on the bed and spread her legs.”
Until his daughter Josie started school, Rea would take her and his wife on tour with him. “It cost me a Ferrari. It was either that or have me family with me. I had to do it cos there wasn’t any way we could stop. The last three albums sold a million, but the first albums cost fortunes and I’ve been paying them back right up until last year. So I had to keep going back on the road.
“Rea’s band, he says, “don’t do the drugs and the women. A lot of them have been through all that before. Max Middleton (keyboards) was initiated in the glorious Jeff Beck years. Eoghan O’Neill (bass player) has had seven hard years with Moving Hearts, absolutely take-no-prisoners when they were young. Robert Ahwaii (guitar), he’s been through it all about seven times. We all have one bond, that we like music, and we like talking about gardening and food.”
He shrugs. “Early middle-aged rock, I suppose.”
Does he ever feel too old?
“What I have felt this year, when we have been breaking new territories, is I’ve cursed them first five years of my career, and the people around me in them first five years. Because we could have done so much more. I’ve proved my point, that I could do it without the hype, that I can be up there with everyone else.
“I felt it for the first time in Australia this year, for a first tour it was really good, 4,000-seaters and that. And everyone said, Right, what you’ll have to do now is come back again in six months time, and again nine months after that. And I thought, I can’t fucking do this. And it got to me. I was quiet for about 48 hours. Our lass was worried about me.
“I saw this year that I could be as big as I liked, if I was prepared to do the touring. And we’d just signed to Tamla Motown, and they were all saying, Now you can do America as well: as long as you go to America for three years. Not see Josie for three years? I couldn’t do it.
“Y’see, I could have been where I am now five years ago. And that hurts a bit. But having said it hurts, my tour manager, being from Middlesbrough, would kick me on the shins and say, but you’re not doing so bad now, are yer?”
There will be a Best Of album released later in ’88 and a UK tour as well. That apart, Rea wants to opt out awhile, maybe indulging himself with an album of jazz-blues. “I want to ‘split up’, in a way. If you carry on touring, all you can aim for is to get bigger, more lorries, more trucks. And it does govern the music; you actually start writing the music to lighting cues.
“There was always this thing that if you didn’t get to Wembley, people would say it was because you couldn’t. Well, having sold out two Wembleys and could’ve done a third, I think I can turn around this year and say, Well I think I’ll do this now, and I won’t have to worry what people say…
“People like Van Morrison are the boys for me. I often see this business as like a big hotel with two bars. There’s that bar where you talk about fame and fortune and being a rock star – and very intricate details about being a rock star; when I listen to these guys I’m sometimes surprised how hard it is for them to remember everything that’s so important about being a rock star. And then there’s another restaurant where there’s Ry Cooder, where there would’ve been Lowell George, Van Morrison, all them type of people. And I’d like to think I was – I think Knopfler’s in that bar as well – I’d like to think I was in that bar with them, rather than talking about fairy lights and image.”
Rea lives just outside of London. For a time, last years, he thought of moving to Ireland. “When I left Middlesbrough, I had to leave. I didn’t leave to be a star, I left to get some money to pay some bills. But I never got happy with the south. Nothing wrong with the people, it’s just that places like Middlesbrough you were brought up with that very close community thing. And once you’ve lost that it’s very hard to get happy with anywhere else. Me and our lass have combed the southern counties, and never quite got happy. And Dublin reminded me a lot of what Middlesbrough used to be; it’s very similar.
“But I’ve got a complication now in that Josie thinks where she lives now is home. The last thing I want to do now is do anything she doesn’t want to do. So, I’m stuck! Dragging her around the world while I try and get happy is not really fair.”
Moving to Ireland wouldn’t have been a tax move, then?
“If you move to Ireland, it’s not as easy as that. I have looked at that, but there’s a lot of complications, which I can’t be pestered with. I mean this year I’m a whole year out of England which’ll help me, but I couldn’t live my whole life as a tax exile. I don’t think I need that much money.
“There again, five years ago, before I had Josie, if someone had said to me, Go on the road for five years solid, you’ll make a million pounds, I probably would have done it then, cos we had nothing else to do. But I’m very sensitive with the family thing. Some guys aren’t. I sometimes think they’re lucky.”
“Reluctant Rocker”, “Reluctant Rockstar”, “Fame And The Reluctant Star” – all headlines from recent articles on Chris Rea. But how “reluctant” can a successful artist really be? It’s such a greasy pole to climb. You don’t get up it without a desperate amount of effort, an obsessional degree of drive. You don’t end up on top by accident. Well, Chris?
“That’s true.” He points to his eyes. “Just look at these little lines under here… I’ve virtually physicallyfought to get where we are. But it’s on the terms of being a musician, and not of being a rock star. The other area that comes with it – you know, my theory of the two hotel bars – is what I’m always trying to get across. Some interviewers ask you really silly questions, and I refuse to answer them. So they’ll say, Don’t you like being a rock star? And I’ll say, I’m not a rock star, I’m a musician who’s been successful.
“You should comb the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. They’ve got some pearls: “Stay-at-home Chris”. Stay-at-home Chris! Duff headline!”